When the men’s draw for the BNP Paribas Open came out, all eyes were focused on the “quarter of death,” which featured three of the big four (Andy Murray was, we thought, blissfully spared on the other side of the draw) and relative upstarts Juan Martin del Potro, Alexander Zverev, and Nick Kyrgios. That Roger Federer and Nick Kyrgios are the two left to wage the generational battle in the quarterfinals was hardly the predicted result. Each man reached this match in impressive style — with straight set wins over formidable opponents in the previous round.
For Roger Federer, his win over Rafael Nadal yesterday may be one of the most impressive of his career. Despite his win in Australia, it was hard to imagine that he would be able to overcome the opponent who has always managed to exploit his weaknesses best, especially on the slow hard courts of Indian Wells. Yet, Federer continued to unleash the backhand drive that won him his 18th Slam, and came away with a lopsided two set win. While it is true that Rafa, one of tennis’ great problem solvers, seemed rather befuddled by his longtime rival’s shiny new backhand, his game also betrayed him in some of the ways that have become too familiar over the past couple of years — questionable positioning, not enough spin on his shots, and errors that were more common than they had been in his prime. As for Federer, he continues to impress with the innovation he brings to his game, a decade removed from his 2004-2007 peak. Even though his game relies on far more preparation and grit than it once did, he still manages to make the near-impossible look effortless.
For much of last year, effortless was a word that was used to describe Nick Kyrgios — though not quite in the same vein as it is for Federer. But, there’s no doubt that he enjoys taking on the game’s biggest challenges. His confidence against the Big Three is nothing short of legendary — he’s defeated all of them in their first meeting, and just notched a second consecutive win against Novak Djokovic. Of course, confidence alone doesn’t win matches, and Kyrgios has the type of game that particularly troubles the Big Three — big serving, and big groundstrokes, as all three can be hit off the court at times. Djokovic is having his own struggles — whether it’s the accusations of lack of focus made by former coach Boris Becker, among others, or the field catching up to him, the last eight months have not been easy for the Serb. Kyrgios, on the other hand, has had a revitalizing week in the desert — with impressive wins in doubles as well as singles.
Federer and Kyrgios have met once — with Kyrgios eking out a win in three tiebreak sets on the high bouncing clay courts of Madrid. It was an extraordinarily close match, with Federer squandering match points before taking the loss. Federer will likely discount it a bit because of the difference in surface and note that he had chances to close it out. Also, Federer’s win in Australia has brought a lightness to his approach to the game in 2017 — the losses seem to sting even less, and the wins are more buoyant. As for Kyrgios, he will certainly bring his confidence to the match — but the question is whether he can hang on to it if Federer gets into a lead and keeps raising his level. Oddly enough, given where each of these players is in his career, today’s match is as much a battle of the swagger as it is a battle of the generations. I wouldn’t expect any fireworks, a la Kyrgios-Wawrinka, given the respectful relationship Kyrgios and Federer appear to have off the court, but it should be a fascinating show.